By Christina Wilkie - 08/17/09 10:45 AM EDT
Former Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) was arraigned in Saratoga on Monday on a felony count of driving while intoxicated. He entered a plea of not guilty and was released without bail. No trial date was set.
This is Sweeney's second drunken-driving offense in less than two years: In November 2007 he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor DWI under similar circumstances; his second offense within the same 10-year period has resulted in an automatic felony indictment.
If convicted, the 54-year-old attorney and father of three could face up to four years in prison. He would also lose his license to practice law in New York state, effectively ending his career.
The son of a union leader from Troy, N.Y., Sweeney rose to power quickly during the mid-1990s in upstate GOP circles, aided by the support of his mentor, former lobbyist Bill Powers. He was elected to Congress to represent the state's 20th congressional district in 1998.
Sweeney arrived in Washington in early 1999 and quickly developed a reputation for being a "work hard, play harder" guy.
To put this in perspective, consider that during the 2000 Florida presidential recount, then-Gov. George W. Bush (R-Texas) nicknamed Sweeney "Congressman Kickass," a reference to the unorthodox tactics he employed while vote-monitoring. These included disruption of election officials and pounding on doors.
Beltway power brokers noticed the freshman lawmaker, too. Early in Sweeney's first term, the now-infamous former lobbyist Jack Abramoff invited Sweeney on an all-expenses-paid trip to the North Marianas Islands that both host and guest would later deny having paid for. Recent FBI reports confirm that the trip is still under active investigation.
Other trips included a memorable long weekend of skiing that Sweeney hosted in January 2006 for members of Congress, staffers and lobbyists in Lake Placid, all paid for by the Olympic Regional Development Authority. During his final few months in office, photographs circulated of the lawmaker attending a late-night party at the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity house at Union College in Schenectady. Attendees reported that Sweeney slurred words and appeared intoxicated, but Sweeney’s office said he was not drunk.
Sweeney’s fall began on December 2, 2005. That was the night his wife Gayle called police to report that her husband was “knocking her around.” Officers arrived at the house, where, according to an incident report, the congressman “grabbed [his wife] by the neck.” No formal charges were filed in the matter.
Weakened by the allegations, Sweeney lost his congressional seat the following year to now-Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) as the Democrats won back the House. Soon after, his wife filed for divorce.
In an interview for the Albany Times Union, Sweeney's attorney in the DWI case, E. Stewart Jones, expressed optimism over the fact that his client recently completed an inpatient rehabilitation program. But he made no attempts to disguise the obvious, bigger picture: that the John Sweeney in Monday's courtroom bears little resemblance to the jaunty politician John Sweeney once was.
“John is paying a heavy price for who he used to be and who he no longer is,” said Jones.